On the Saturday closest to my thirtieth birthday, I went out on the town with Andrew and Izzy, two of my Highbury flatmates. With my time in dreamy Wellington drawing to a close—to say nothing of my waning metabolic rate—the need to run a little wild at the end of an afternoon spent contemplating fiction felt realer than ever.
To this end our trio wound up, at three in the morning, after hours of dancing, walking toward a Burger King on the corner of Cuba and Manners. This Burger King occupies the ground floor of a heritage building with an Edwardian Baroque façade. Once home to the first Te Aro branch of the Bank of New Zealand, the building now shoulders what the local government describes as “considerable townscape significance.”
“My uncle used to be the president of Burger King,” said Andrew, sitting across from me and eating fries. The Burger King before us teemed with loud, drunken revelers.
“I can one-up you,” said Izzy. “My grandfather used to be the chairman of the National Front.”
“What’s the National Front?” I asked.
“You don’t know what the National Front is?” said Izzy. “Are you kidding me? Fucking Americans!”
“Look,” I said. “I know about a lot of things outside of America. I can’t know about all of them.”
“You know what the Klu Klux Klan is,” said Izzy.
“Well, of course.”
“It’s like the Klan, but in the UK.”
“So the UKKKK.”
“That’s not a step up,” said Andrew. “That’s two steps down.”
“Only two?” I said.
At this point, a red-faced, heavily slurring young man appeared as if out of nowhere and joined us at our table.
“I was going to punch you,” he said to Andrew. Then, it sounded like he said: “I thought you were myself.”
“You thought I was yourself?” said Andrew.
“I was going to punch you,” he repeated. “I thought you were Marcelle.”
“Oh,” said Andrew. “Who’s Marcelle?”
The young man set his burger down on the table. It looked like it had been rewrapped in its greasy paper after a brief manhandling. He hunched over it. “I can’t even eat this,” he said. “It’s … look at it.”
“It’s sickening,” I said. “I already regret eating mine.” Regret had not yet crossed my mind, but this seemed a better direction for the conversation than punching. “It’s basically garbage,” I added.
The young man indulged in a drunk little chuckle. “I might get sick.”
“Don’t do that,” said Andrew.
“Don’t get sick,” said Izzy.
“You’re fine,” I said.
“Just don’t push me,” he said, swaying, “and I won’t throw up.”
“So,” I said, “this is where everyone ends up at the end of the night, after all the bars close. Do people hook up here? Like if they didn’t meet anyone at the bar?”
Izzy said something about sex and death at Burger King.
“Look at this thing,” said the young drunk. He unwrapped the burger, revealing a half-crushed, collapsing stack of seeded bun, mayo, meat, lettuce, angry yellow cheese. (I expected to see a slice of fuchsia beetroot—the surprise ingredient in many New Zealand burgers.) He recoiled, closing his eyes tight. “I can’t even look at it!”
“It’s like a circle of life in here,” I said. “Sex, death, garbage, eating…”
“Birth,” said Izzy.
“Sex, death, garbage, eating, birth,” I said.
“I took a bite of it and now I have the taste in my mouth,” said the young man. “It’s horrible.”
“It’s garbage,” I said. “It has zero nutritional value. We’ve all come here at the end of the night and paid to fill our bodies with garbage in this beautiful former bank.”
“People so hungry,” said the young man, glaring around the Burger King. “People so hungry they’ll eat the face off your head.”
“Why are we doing this?” I said. “What are we doing with our lives?”
“Hey,” said Andrew, addressing the young man and pointing out Izzy’s black vinyl bag on the chair next to him. “What do you think of this bag?”
The young man gave the bag a long look, then shook his head. “I’m not even dealing with that bag right now,” he said.
I spent part of my actual thirtieth birthday, two days later, refining my travel itinerary. New Zealand had been good to me, but the time was nigh to move onto other, more chaotic cityscapes: Jakarta, Singapore, a single Mardi Gras event with “seven sensational party spaces” in Sydney. A little more sight-seeing remained on my Wellington list, after which it would be time to say, as the Kiwis at the corner stores so often did on my way out the door with a bag of feijoa candies, “See ya!”
The next day, I walked down Tinakori Road, through Thorndon, to visit the birthplace of Katherine Mansfield. The beloved modernist described this place, in one of her short fictions, as “that horrid little piggy house which was really dreadful.” Rather plain on the outside, maybe, but the interior presented a charming array of period pieces, reproductions, and sentimental bric-a-brac: family photographs featuring the beloved modernist, clematis wallpaper remade from a pattern discovered in fragments under the architraves, the doll’s house that had something to do with her story “The Doll’s House,” and what I took to be a replica fruitcake on the dining room table. By the time I passed through the servery and into the scullery, I had become so used to staged inanimate treasures that I spent an unnecessary amount of time staring at the sodden pillow of a teabag in the sink, wondering where it fell on the spectrum of reality. The kind of teabag I was staring at in the birthplace of Katherine Mansfield must not have been manufactured until the mid-twentieth century, well after the beloved modernist had suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage trying to run up the stairs at George Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, in Fontainebleau.
Thumbing through The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield, I read:
“Tonight the sea is douce.”
“The roaring of the sea was insufferable.”
“I hate the sea.”
The way back to my neighborhood cut through the Botanic Gardens. Huge fern fronds cast strange shadows, and a crush of hydrangeas grew up white, purple, or periwinkle, I guessed according to the acidity of the soil. That’s what I had heard about hydrangeas.
When I got home, I checked my email, and learned that one of my ex-boyfriends had just died of a drug overdose. I had not seen him in about five years, and we had definitely gone our separate ways in life, but the news still shocked me.
Dazed and sad, I made a cup of tea and sat out in our overgrown lawn, in the sun. The neighborhood at midday was quiet and still. My laundry swayed on the line. Nobody I’ve met in New Zealand has a tumble dryer to go with their washing machine; they hang their rows of empty shirts, let them billow dry in the infamous Wellington wind.
Another way back to my neighborhood, from the shops of Lambton Quay, is to take the historic cable car. On the day before my nocturnal visit to Burger King, I was down in Lambton Quay doing some birthday shopping. I needed, I deserved a new shirt, a shirt that I could wear and wash and dry on the line. With the new birthday shirt now in my possession—the softwash cotton shirt, the chambray shirt, the shirt referred to by the retailer as the “Arcadia Shirt”—I waited for the cable car to take me up the hill.
Before long, the cable car came into view at the top of the sharply pitched tunnel. As it neared I noticed a little girl and her sister standing at the front of the car, right up against the window, rapt at the novelty and the view. When the car finally came to a halt, it gave a jerk, and the girl lurched forward into the window, hitting her nose somewhat hard. Though I couldn’t hear what happened next, I watched as her sister gloated and laughed, having avoided injury, while the girl held one hand over her nose and clenched the other into a determined fist.
That poor little girl, I thought. I’ll be writing about her within the hour.
Evan James is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Sun, and elsewhere. He is writing a novel. He is also on Twitter.